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Walkabout #6: The Block, Redfern (2010)

Urban slum, Aboriginal icon or real-estate goldmine? Depending on the beholder, The Block signifies many different things and inspires both fear and affection in Sydneysiders. Barely 8,000 square metres in size, it's cordoned off from the rest of Redfern by four streets - Eveleigh, Caroline, Hugo and Hudson. Within that perimeter stands a patch of land that smoulders with relentless controversy and spirit.

Back in the 1790s, members of the Gadigal tribe occupied the land on which The Block now stands. Aboriginal people from rural areas migrated to Redfern in greater numbers during the 1920s, lured by work opportunities at the Eveleigh railyards. As the community grew, activists lobbied the Whitlam government to transfer ownership of The Block to the Aboriginal Housing Company. In 1972, The Block became a unique project in Aboriginal-run housing and the focal point for the reconciliation movement.

Ravaged by heroin in the 90s, recent history hasn't exactly smiled on The Block.  Four years ago, a teenager was killed after a bicycle accident left him impaled on a metal fence. Claims the death was caused by a police pursuit sparked a nine-hour riot in which cars were set alight and police pelted with bricks and petrol bombs. Only last month, 100 police clad in bulletproof vests raided homes in The Block, arresting more than 10 people as part of a crackdown on local drug dealers.

The raid took place on Eveleigh Street just across the road from Redfern Station. Turning into it, the first thing you see is a vast Aboriginal flag painted on the side of Elouera ‘Tony Mundine' gym. It's a weekday morning but there are plenty of locals hanging around the streets. In the shell of an abandoned house several people are crashed out on a ragged old sofa. Broken glass crunches underfoot as you pass terrace houses in various stages of dilapidation. Some are completely derelict, their windows and doors bricked up to stop them becoming drug dens - the reason most of the houses on Eveleigh have already been bulldozed. Up Holden Street to the right, a sign bears a message of wistful hope: JESUS LOVES YOU.

On the corner of Vine Street stands Mundine's gym, the great former champ over weight four divisions.  Battered posters of boxing legends cover the walls including plenty of Anthony Mundine, the current WBA super middleweight titleholder, who still regularly trains at his father's gym. The space is buzzing with people both black and white. A stocky youth pounds the heavy bag with sullen intensity while in the ring a woman throws a flurry of precise jabs at her trainers' hands.

"Look good, feel good" urges the writing on the stairwell.

The Mundines' contribution to the local community isn't limited to the sporting arena. Mick Mundine, Anthony's uncle, is chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Company. He's determined to revitalise the Block with a bold redevelopment initiative that would construct 62 much-needed houses. But Frank Sartor, the  Minister for Planning, is reluctant to sanction further Aboriginal housing. These reservations stem from Redfern being earmarked as Sydney's next site for regeneration thanks to its central location and transport links. Developers are salivating at the prospect. Only they're not keen on sharing the area with The Block's residents. "There is no way that Redfern is going to be that commercial mini-centre with Aboriginal housing and The Block still in place," Ken Morrison, executive director of the NSW Property Council told the Australian Financial Review: "We need to sort that out."

The repercussions of such opposition are ominous for the symbolic home of Sydney's Aboriginal community. Turning onto Louis Street, it's possible to leave the urban squalor behind as the shiny Community Centre - a vibrant cultural hub of recording studio, dancefloor, exhibition spaces and outdoor ampitheatre - while Caroline Street offers a neat stretch of well-maintained terraces. Wherever you look, you're constantly reminded of The Block's heritage, with endless murals and depictions of the Aboriginal flag. It may be disadvantaged, but a defiant pride remains.

Nevertheless the demographic is starting to change. Down Vine Street is Re-Creations, a unique shop that transforms salvaged pieces of timber into sculptures and elegantly customised furniture. Owner James Nixon admits he rarely locks the shopfront when he's busy in the workshop out the back. "I've never had any dramas," he insists. "All the local kids are always coming down here and everyone knows the dog."

The area's pulling power is also increasing. Up the road on Wilson Street is Carriageworks, the former railway workshops that have evolved into a contemporary arts mecca with two theatre spaces and a gallery. At the nearby Australian Technology Park a purpose-built media complex will soon house the Seven Network and Pacific Magazines. And that's just the start. The Eveleigh railyards are undergoing a $550 million makeover that will include 1260 new flats, cafes, shops and an undercover food and craft market.

The future for Redfern is glaringly bright. But does The Block figure in the area's renaissance? Local development plans clearly focus on the next generation of tenants not the residents of one of Sydney's most vulnerable communities. As new apartments are assembled down the road, the houses on Eveleigh Street continue to crumble.

In the 'hood

Elouera Tony Mundine Gym

For a $5 entry fee you can workout in the same gym as Anthony "The Man" Mundine. Cnr Vine and Eveleigh Sts, Redfern 2016. (02 9319 0316).

Redfern Community Centre

Facilities includes a sound recording studio, amphitheatre for open-air concerts, plus arts, exercise and entertainment programs. 29-53 Hugo St, Redfern 2016. (02 9288 5714).


Recycled timber is fashioned into unique furniture, mirrors and art. Pieces also available at Bondi and Balmain markets. 2b Edward St, Darlington 2008, (0405 072 477)


This mecca for contemporary arts contains two theatre spaces, a gallery, exhibition spaces, a bar and café. 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh 2015. (02 8571 9099).

Getting there from Central

  • Bus Take the 309, 378, 413 or 423 to Redfern. Bus fare: $1.80
  • Train Take the Bankstown, Western, South or Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Line to Redfern. Fare: $2.60
  • Parking Redfern Car Park, corner Gibbons Street and Marian Street

Photo: Sydney's toughest stretch of street sits right on the doorstep of the CBD